Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Reivew: Battle Magic


Title: Battle Magic, by Tamora Pierce, 440 pages
Publisher: Scholastic, 2013

Although it is listed as the third book in "The Circle Reforged" series, Battle Magic actually takes place before either The Will of the Empress or Melting Stones.  It is the hinted-at tale of the difficulties Briar, his teacher Rosethorn, and his student Evvy experienced on their travels.  As the title suggests, this is a book about the mages at war, and what they will do when pushed.  Taken from their visit to the small, rather Tibet-like kingdom of Gyongxe by an invitation to visit the gardens of the emperor of Yanjing, the three discover an empire prepared for massive war.  When they leave, they find that the war has already been launched--against Gyongxe.  With the main temple of Rosethorne's religion located there, she has no question about her duty--and the young mages won't leave her.  Thus are all three thrust into the middle of epic battles and a struggle of good and evil.

First things first.  I've already mentioned that this is not really part of a series, the way most of Pierce's books are (she's been writing longer and longer books so I guess the whole story can go in one, so the last few have been free-standing though still using familiar characters).  I want to also mention that there's a reason I'm not reviewing this on my KidLit day, and that's because to my mind it's well beyond Middle Grade and definitely into Young Adult territory (as in fact I think many of her books are, as the characters move out of childhood and deal with adult issues, including sex).

Now before I can go on with my review I'm going to have to talk about sex, violence, and kids' books.  I want to be clear: I think that the way Pierce handles sex and violence is really, really good.  And starting from maybe age 12 or 13, I think most of her books offer some really good ways to think about real issues that real kids do think about.  But not in grade school.

That said: in this book there is no explicit sex.  There are a few subtle hints of sexual violence, and at least one consensual couple going off into the dark together (they are definitely adults, and who cares if they do it?), but it's all handled in ways that wouldn't bother me for the 9-12 set.  The real thing that gave me pause was the violence.  Rather, the war.  To be sure, it's not generally super graphic, but I was left with images in my head (as were Briart, Evvy and Rosethorn) that I hope will fade fairly soon.  Maybe a bit much for kids.  I am aware that there are a number of books in the Juvenile section of our library that deal with war, real and imagined, in ways as graphic or more so.  I wonder about them, too, sometimes.  It's a choice for a parent to make, I think.

So, taking the book as it is, and leaving aside the question of whether it's really Juvvy lit, I have to say I was totally caught up in the story.  Tamora Pierce is a wonderful storyteller, and not only are we pre-disposed to care about the main characters, she continues to develop them in ways that make them human and interesting.  If I have any criticisms, it would be that the story felt a little one-dimensional.  The war absorbed everything.  Having written that, it sounds stupid: war does have a way of doing that.  But seriously, I think more needed to happen inside the characters, or something, because it just felt. . . thin.  I am not sure that a person who came to this without having read the other books in the series would either follow it as well or care as much.

On reflection, maybe what it felt like was a book that wanted to be adult, and really dive into what was going on as an adult, but kept holding back because it's supposed to be for kids.  That's a tough place for an author to be.  And the bottom line?  Whatever criticism I might have in the cold light of day, I sat up very late reading this two or three nights in a row, because darn it, it's a good story!

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